Japanese Modernist Studio Ceramics

Last year, a ground-breaking exhibition was held in the Art Gallery of South Australia titled “Pure Form: Japanese Sculptural Ceramics”. This exhibition, centered around the private collection of leading Australian collector Raphy Star, focused on modernist Japanese ceramics from the 1950s to the present day.

Yagi Kazuo carrying
an unfired sculpture to the communal kiln / Image courtesy Yagi Akira

Japan has long been a country obsessed with ceramics, from pots and bowls made in the folk kilns for every-day use by the common people, to ceramics made for the elites for use in tea ceremony and kaiseki dining, and export products like those made in the Kakiemon kilns in the 17th century. It is commonly known that whatever Japanese craftsmen turn their minds and hands to, they excel at, and ceramic production is no exception.

Ceramics in Japan, despite their beauty and sometimes lofty status, have always been seen as utilitarian objects, made with a purpose – whether for eating, drinking tea, or to decorate the household tokonoma alcove in seasonal displays. The word mingei (art of the common people) was coined by philosopher and aesthete Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961) in the 1920s, and he went on the write a hugely influential book named “The Unknown Craftsman”. Mingei refers to folk crafts, however in a way more importantly it championed utilitarianism as the primary reason for an object’s being, eschewing art object status.

In contrast, the avante-garde art ceramic movement Sodeisha (“Crawling Through Mud Association”) was born in 1948 just after the second world war. Sodeisha was founded by potter and art philosopher Yagi Kazuo (1918-1979) to break free of the tradition of utilitarianism in ceramics, having been intensely inspired by the ceramic sculptures of Picasso and Isamu Noguchi. He also felt a need to break free of the traditional art world associations including the annual competitions, as he saw these as a constriction on artistic freedom. The Sodeisha group mailed out postcards with this motto in 1948:

Asian Works of Art. Leonard Joel Auctions
A Japanese Modernist Vase by Miyanaga Tozan III (1935-) Heisei Period (1989-2019), Circa 1990. Sold for $8,125

“The post-war art world needed the expediency of creating associations in order to escape from personal confusion, but today, finally, that provisional role appears to have ended. The birds of dawn taking flight out of the forest of falsehood now discover their reflections only in the spring of truth. We are united not to provide a ‘warm bed of dreams’, but to come to terms with our existence in broad daylight.”

Sodeisha artists created vessels either without mouths or with mouths so narrow that they could not be used to contain flowers or liquids, and so pottery as sculpture was born in Japan. Sodeisha was highly influential in subsequent Japanese art ceramics.

After the Japanese economic bubble collapsed in the late 1980s, Japanese art had been performing quite poorly, but over the last five years has begun to see a steady recovery.   Ceramics have been the slowest to recover, but thanks to exhibitions like “Pure Form: Japanese Sculptural Ceramics”, and promotion by specialist New York dealers like Joan Mirviss and Dai Ichi Arts, Japanese modernist post-war ceramics are beginning to rise again.

Asian Works of Art. Leonard Joel Auctions
A Japanese Modernist Studio Vase by Kondo Yuzo (1902–1985) Showa Period (1926-1989), Circa 1970. Sold for $3,750

In our last Asian Works of Art auction in March, we offered an interesting group of these ceramics from two Australian private collections.  Lot 246 was a very sculptural celadon vase by Miyanaga Tozan III (1935-), evincing his connection with Sodeisha. Lots 228 and 244 were by “Living National Treasures” Shimizu Uichi (1926-2004) and Kondo Yuzo (1902-1985). These works generally performed above their estimates, but still at prices well within reach, showing that 20th century Japanese ceramics are a fantastic opportunity to collect truly world-class art affordably in a world where important artists’ work is generally unreachable for the average collector. 

CARL WANTRUP / Asian Art Consultant

Banner Image: A Japanese studio vase by Shimizu Uichi (1926-2004) Showa Period (1926-1989) Sold for $2,500

May 2023